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We've seen these disinformation and smear campaigns orchestrated by the Religious Right play out before: Religious Right organizations make an outrageous claim; in this case, a secret meeting aimed at attacking the religious freedom of Christian conservatives in the military, took place at the Pentagon April 23, 2013. This phony claim spreads like a virus through conservative networks. The story takes off at outlets like Breitbart.com, Fox News, WorldNetDaily and other right wing websites, blogs, e-mail newsletters and on twitter.
The target of this particular campaign is Michael L. "Mickey" Weinstein, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). Since its founding the MRFF has been dedicated to battling Christian fundamentalism in the military. For waging this battle, the Religious Right's has labeled Weinstein -- a registered Republican and former military prosecutor who served in the Ronald Reagan Administration -- an "anti-Christian extremist," "a religious bigot" and the "Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan."
Over the years, Weinstein has been swamped with hate mail.
Now, he is one of the Religious Right's premier public enemies.
According to the MRFF website, the organization aims at "ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."
On April 23, of this year, Weinstein, president, former ambassador Joe Wilson, and Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, met with several generals and a military chaplain in a non-secret and ultimately well-publicized meeting at the Pentagon to discuss an assortment of issues related to the military, including religious proselytizing.
"The armed forces are on the verge of falling apart," Wilkerson, told the Washington Post's Sally Quinn in a story published three days after the Pentagon meeting. In addition to religious proselytizing, Wilkerson said that other problems include "sexual assault, suicides, lowering entrance standards and war weariness. They are in trouble, and the leadership is oblivious."
Quinn reported, "Sexual assault and proselytizing, according to Wilkerson, 'are absolutely destructive of the bonds that keep soldiers together.'"
After the meeting, Weinstein told Quinn "that military leaders need to understand that 'there is systematic misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the military.' He said it is all part of the same culture.
'This is a national security threat. What is happening [aside from sexual assault] is spiritual rape. And what the Pentagon needs to understand is that it is sedition and treason. It should be punished.'"
According to Quinn, "The proselytizing they referred to is primarily from 'dominionist' or fundamentalist evangelical Christians. Weinstein's organization has 33,000 clients, and 96 percent are Christian. These clients come to him to complain about having their religious freedom undermined in some way."
The MRFF has fielded numerous complaints from active duty soldiers over the years. Quinn listed a few:
* "Recently, an Army commander in Europe overturned a jury's conviction of an officer for sexual assault, despite the fact that the decision was unanimous."
* "So called "Jesus rifles," with gun sights inscribed with Bible quotations, were used in battle by troops. The MRFF fought successfully to have the New Testament passages removed."
* "Last year, Marine officers at a U.S. base changed the name of their fighter attack squadron from "Werewolves" to "Crusaders," with a cross and shield as an insignia. MRFF fought the change after receiving many complaints from Marines. MRFF won, and the squadron is back to Werewolves."
* "A chaplain in Afghanistan recently was the target of complaint for sermonizing to troops, including Afghan soldiers, that they had approximately 2,000 days to live and needed to 'get right with Jesus.'"
* "Weinstein even got the military to force an officer to remove an atheist bumper sticker from his car. An evangelical Christian complained about the sticker, which bore a drawing of Satan and a Christian fish."
Christian right groups characterized the Pentagon meeting as a secret meeting aimed at stripping Christians of their religious freedoms.
In a breitbart.com piece dated April 28, titled "Pentagon Taps Anti-Christian Extremist for Religious Tolerance Policy," Ken Klukowski, senior fellow for religious liberty at the Family Research Council and a faculty member at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University School of Law, threw out another rumor: Weinstein "will be a consultant to the Pentagon to develop new policies on religious tolerance, including a policy for court-martialing military chaplains who share the Christian Gospel during spiritual counseling of American troops."
Chris Rodda, the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History recently noted that Klukowski's story on Breitbart was pure fantasy, aimed at ginning up the Religious Right's base.
She also pointed out that between May 1 and May 13 breitbart.com ran at least eight Weinstein-bashing stories, in which he was called an "anti-Christian extremist," and a "religious bigot."
Despite this misinformation, perhaps the biggest get for the Religious Right came in early June, when Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) "introduced an [religious liberty] amendment to the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)." According to Rodda, "The real purpose of Fleming's amendment, however, is not religious liberty -- unless you consider government permission to freely discriminate against and harass LGB service members to be religious liberty. As Huffington Post Deputy Politics Editor Mollie Reilly very succinctly explained, what the Fleming amendment would actually do is take away the ability of military commanders to stop anti-gay harassment and discrimination within their ranks."
Despite White House objections, the amendment passed the House on June 13.
In late June, the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, a new Christian conservative enterprise, formed "to protect the 'right' of anti-gay Christians in the military to continue to discriminate against and harass LGB service members in a post-DADT and post-DOMA military."
Four primary organizations in this coalition are the Family Research Council (FRC), the American Family Association (AFA), Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL), and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
In mid-September, the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition met with officials at the Pentagon to discuss their concerns. An email to American Family Association supporters said: "We made our point very clear...Christian soldiers and airmen have the right to express their faith and to maintain deeply held religious convictions in every area including homosexuality and homosexual marriage."
The AFA's email acknowledged they had "specifically expressed alarm at the undue influence on the military of noted atheist 'Mikey' Weinstein with whom the Pentagon has met on a number of occasions," and that they had been assured by Air Force officials that "Weinstein's self-proclamation of influence is greatly exaggerated and that the Air Force no longer returns his phone calls."
Chris Rodda pointed out that "It was breitbart.com that started the rumor that Mikey Weinstein had become a Pentagon consultant! And ... it was Ken Klukowski, who also just happens to work for the FRC, one of the member organizations of the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition [who started the rumor and who] was at this September 12 meeting!"
The Christian Right has been smearing and slamming Mikey Weinstein for quite some time and there is no reason to think their attacks will end anytime soon. Accompanying an article titled "Military Assault: Freedom to Share Christ Within Ranks at Risk," in the July 2013 edition of Decision magazine -- a publication of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association -- is a sidebar titled "Mikey Weinstein: One of the Most Dangerous Men in America."
Despite its lack of veracity, the secret meeting story led to a new Religious Right coalition, legislation in Congress, more fundamentalist fundraising pitches, and, most importantly, another opportunity for the Religious Right to claim martyrdom.
(Photo: J. L. Gérôme)